Read an Excerpt
KARA WOKE UP IN THE GRIP of a nightmare. Heart racing, she sat up in bed, covered in sweat. She switched on the bedside lamp as she looked at the clock. 3:00 a.m. She pushed her damp hair away from her eyes and swung her feet to the floor. Ever watchful, Lady looked up at Kara with intelligent brown eyes.
"Hey, Lady. Good girl." She stroked the collie's ruff, taking comfort in her presence. In the kitchen, she poured a glass of water and leaned against the sink while she drank. Would the nightmares never stop?
In her wildest imagination, Kara never would have seen herself as a widow at thirty. In her nightmares, she relived over and over again the knock on her door.
Every night it was the same. Evan's best friend and construction partner stood on the porch. Tom looked at her with such agony, she knew something awful had happened before he even spoke. Evan was never coming home again.
Kara forced herself to go back to bed. But she left the lamp on and tuned the radio to her favorite country station. Grateful it was Saturday, which meant the bank was closed and she didn't have to work, she slept fitfully. Sunlight woke her the second time. Streaming through the window, it gave the false impression everything was right and wonderful. Like a thousand other times in the past eight months, Kara only wanted to pull the drapes, crawl back in bed and sleep.
But she got up. She had to. Having Lady helped. The dog depended on her for everything. Kara let her out, then fed her.
She had quickly learned that exercise was one of the best ways to help lift herself out of depression. So after a shower and a light breakfast, she phoned Danita. No answer. Odd. Weather permitting, Danita rode with her almost every Saturday, even when it wasn't a Ride Away weekend. No matter; she'd stop at her house on her way to the stable. It was the warmest day this May so far, and she wasn't about to waste a moment of it.
From the spare bedroom that served as her tack room, Kara retrieved her saddle and carried it outside. She swung it into the back of the '78 Ford pickup that had been Evan's pride and joy, feeling his presence the way she always did...in everything he'd touched.... Lady tagged at her heels, waiting eagerly for Kara to open the passenger door.
"You wanna ride shotgun, hey, girl?" Kara laughed and let the collie in.
As she neared Danita's house on the corner, Kara spotted her best friend in the backyard, by the barbecue grill. She waved, but Danita didn't respond; didn't even seem to see her. Kara rounded the corner and parked in the driveway.
"Hey, you," she called as she opened the backyard gate. "What's up?" Then Danita turned and Kara realized her eyes were red-rimmed, her expression furious.
"I'm having a ritual burning, that's what." She flung lighter fluid in a wild arc, soaking a pile of photographs and the torn remains of an album, then lit a match. Flames shot up with a whoosh.
Kara gasped. "Danita—my God, those are your wedding photos! What are you doing?" She laid a hand on her friend's arm.
"I'm burning every last trace of that cheating bastard out of my life, that's what," Danita said with a sniff. She tossed another stack of photos onto the fire.
"What?" She couldn't have heard right. Childhood sweethearts, Danita and Phillip had been happily married for twenty-two years. They had a grown daughter...a beautiful home. But then, she knew all too well that change and tragedy struck without warning. Kara tugged on Danita's arm. "Come sit down and tell me what happened."
The older woman allowed herself to be led to the patio table, where the two sat on her cushioned, wrought-iron chairs. "I caught him red-handed," Danita said without preamble. "I came home from work early last night because I wasn't feeling well. And there he was—in our bed, damn it! With one of his clients. Guess he took the massage therapy thing to a whole new level." Danita's dark eyes flooded and she blinked back tears, then blew her nose into a tissue. "Happy frickin' anniversary to me, huh?" She sniffed loudly. "We were supposed to go out to dinner this weekend to celebrate. How could that bastard do this?" She slammed her fist onto the table, causing the terra-cotta flowerpot to jump on its plate.
Kara tried not to let her mouth gape. "I don't even know what to say. My God! You should have called me. You could've stayed the night at my place." She shook her head. "I never, ever would've thought Phillip would cheat on you."
"That makes two of us." Danita honked into the tissue again. "What a fool I was. All those late evenings at work and the hang-up calls...I didn't think a thing about them. How stupid could I be?"
"You're not stupid." Kara squeezed Danita's hand. "You're a loving, trusting wife, and Phillip ought to be horsewhipped. As a matter of fact, I'll do it for you. Where is the slimeball?"
Danita managed a small laugh. "I kicked his ass to the curb. He's probably with the bimbo as we speak. The puta!"
Kara opened her mouth to add a snappy comment, but froze. "Oh, hell! Your porch—it's on fire!"
"What?" Danita spun in her chair, then stood so fast it tipped over. "Oh my God!"
The barbecue grill stood a short distance from the old-fashioned, shingle-roofed porch, and the breeze had caught the flames, sending them skyward. From there, they must've enveloped a hanging wicker flower basket suspended from the porch beam before the beam itself caught fire.
Kara dived for the water faucet, turning the handle on full blast as Danita pointed the hose at the porch. But the charcoal fluid must've splashed the porch. The accelerant gave the fire enough of a boost to quickly climb the beam toward the shingles. And like that, the roof was on fire.
"Call 911!" Danita shouted. Kara was already scrambling for the cell phone in her purse.
The volunteer fire department arrived within minutes. Siren blaring, the old-but-still-reliable truck ground to a halt at the curb. Kara stood out of the way with Danita, and watched the men battle the flames. Local police officers arrived to help keep the crowding neighbors back. And because there generally wasn't a lot of excitement in Sage Bend, population eight hundred seventy-five, it took five officers arriving in three police cars to do the job.
The fire chief, Shawn Rutherford, came over to speak with Danita and Kara, and take down a report of what had happened. Tall, with thick hair that was more black than silver, Shawn had the sexiest dark eyes Kara had ever seen. And those eyes seemed fastened on Danita.
When he walked away, Kara nudged Danita in the ribs. "Hey, I think he likes you." She grinned, wanting to take her friend's mind off her troubles. "He couldn't take his eyes off you."
"Don't be ridiculous," Danita scoffed. "He was only looking at me because we were talking."
"Mmm-hmm. He talked to me, too, but he didn't look at me like that."
"After what my swine of a husband did, a man is the last person I want near me—ever again." Danita clutched her hair with both hands and stared at the smoldering porch roof. "Argh! Thank you, Phillip, for turning me into an arsonist!"
Kara draped her arm around her friend's shoulders. "When Phillip sees you out on the town with a hot fireman on your arm, he'll wish he'd never cheated on you."
Danita snorted. "Sorry to disappoint you, girlfriend, but Chief Rutherford stands a better chance of putting out the fires of Hades than he does of getting me out on a date." She crossed her arms. "And may Phillip rot in hell while he tries."
THAT NIGHT, Kara lay against her pillows on the bed she'd shared with Evan, and stared at his picture. Here she was, out of her mind missing her husband, while Danita was cursing hers and wishing him dead. Life sure didn't seem fair.
Oh, Evan, how can you be gone? Please, God, let me wake up tomorrow morning and find it's all been a bad dream. She lifted the five-by-seven photograph from the nightstand and clutched it to her breast, letting the tears come. She'd loved Evan since junior high, and they'd had a good life—a great life—together.
Kara closed her eyes, and images of Evan's funeral came back as clearly as if it had been yesterday. Snow falling from a lifeless, gray sky...Evan's friends acting as pallbearers. Big, macho construction workers who'd broken down and wept like babies over their friend's coffin. And Evan's mother, Liz—a widow herself... The poor woman needed tranquilizers.
Why? The question was one Kara still had no answer to.
She visited Evan's grave every week, often with Liz. But somehow she felt foolish, sitting beside a cold, marble stone. Evan wasn't there. His spirit was here, with her—always.
But tonight the bedroom felt empty.
The knock on her front door startled her. Lady barked and raced for the living room. Quickly, Kara dried her eyes, and placed Evan's picture back on the nightstand. Who would be knocking at this hour? It was nearly nine-thirty. She hurried after the collie.
Kara peered through one of the glass rectangles on either side of the door. A man stood on her porch.
Leaving the safety chain in place, she flicked on the porch light and opened the door a few inches. Her gaze immediately met his. He was good-looking beyond reason, his sandy-brown hair just long enough to touch the collar of the denim jacket he wore over a fancy western shirt. Tall, he looked down at her.
"Hi." He smiled. "I'm sorry to bother you at this hour, but I saw your lights on and thought you might not be asleep."
Kara stared at him through the crack. "Can I help you with something?" she asked.
"Actually, yes. I'm Derrick Mertz. I live over there." He gestured toward the mint-green house diagonally across the street from her. "And I'm afraid my kitten is stuck in the tree in your backyard."
Didn't serial killers often use the ruse of a missing pet to lure their victims? Later, the body turns up in the woods, bones scattered by wild animals. The news reporters always marveled that a crime like that could happen in such a quiet, close-knit community.